All in a day’s work: The mares’ milk farmer *H&H Plus*

  • Organic farmer Frank Shellard, the only producer of mares’ milk in the UK, on treating eczema and making bread and cheese, as told to Kate Johnson

    I trained as an agricultural engineer but I’ve been around horses all my life. My first memory is of sitting in my pram, aged two, and watching the last of the working cart-horses go past.

    I had vaguely heard about mare’s milk and Mongolians drinking it throughout history but I didn’t take much notice. I became interested because my daughter, who runs our business, had severe eczema in childhood and treatments hadn’t cleared it up. I’d read the milk might help.

    My first taste was at a Belgian farm more than 20 years ago. It was quite nutty, sweeter than I thought it’d be, very pure, with the consistency of semi-skimmed milk. I really enjoyed it and brought some home. My daughter tried it and her eczema got better.

    Then three years ago, my granddaughter had similar severe eczema. I visited another Belgian farmer in Lier who gave me a lot of information. I bought four or five horses, put them in foal and started milking them.

    We now have 15 mares in the milking herd and two stallions. Mocha is my favourite; she’s part-Percheron and was one of the first we bought. She comes to the gate, nudges you and almost talks to you. The stallions run with the herd in quite a natural way.

    We have a few thoroughbreds but they don’t milk as well, they tend to be a bit flightier.

    When we started, the BHS and World Horse Welfare wanted to be sure I was breeding useful, wanted foals. We sell privately and people are queuing up to buy. We keep in regular contact with new owners, so we know how they’re getting on. We keep the mares all their lives and we keep some foals.

    The foal births are normally staggered from March to the end of August. For the first two months, when the milk is the best, rich with antibodies, the foal has all the milk. After that, we bring them in at 7am, and put the mare and foal in adjacent stables so they can still see each other, chat, and nuzzle, and they both have a short feed. At 11am, we do the first milking. It takes a few minutes. The mares go back to the foals for a few hours and we milk once more, then the foals are with their mums again until morning.

    There’s a difference in the taste, just as with Jerseys and Friesians; the quality’s slightly better in a smaller horse. We get two to three litres in one milking, though they are very sensitive to what they’ll give and continuity hugely matters. When I went away for a few days, one of the girls took over, and when I came back and milked, the quantity had reduced.

    Horses’ digestive systems are similar to humans so it’s easy for us to digest due to being low in the protein casein. It’s very good for gut flora. It’s completely natural, low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals, and the enzymes and amino acids are very good for skin. We’ve made bread and cheese with it, and we’re in the process of making soaps and hand creams too.

    Milking is therapeutic. Over the past three years it’s connected me back to nature. It’s like the difference between driving a car and walking; you notice things you’ve never seen. Now I listen to the dawn chorus. My relationship with the horses is more intimate, it’s a different level of trust.

    People thought we were completely mad and most had never heard of it. I drink 250ml every morning at room temperature and I feel strong and relaxed, as does our head girl who does triathlons and has been drinking it for 12 months. We haven’t rushed it but now we’ve got the milk bang on. I have no doubt this will catch on.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 3 September 2020